I don’t know whether you’ve noticed, but it’s very rare for me to include ghost stories on Esmeralda’s. It’s not that I haven’t looked at a few – always ones supposedly rooted in an historical event – but with one exception1, they don’t pass the simplest test of veracity. Some simply don’t marry up with historical events, like the Claife Crier2, and others, such as the Beckside Boggle3 and Hutton-in-the-Forest’s headless horsewoman4, are demonstrably fiction, with authors, publishing dates and so on. I’ve also chosen not to spend a lot of time with our assorted otherworldly creatures – dobbies, boggles, barguests, elves, fairies, cappels, hobs and bogarts – partly because there are others tackling these5 but mostly because they’re almost impossible to define. Let’s look at a few attempts at definition by other historians: Henderson6, writing in 1866, suggests that ghosts and ‘bogles’ are interchangeable, although a ‘dobie’ is a ‘mortal heavy sprite’, which appears to be 19th –century Borders code for a ghost that’s none-too-clever. Sullivan7, in 1891, on the other hand, is confident that a ‘dobbie’ is ‘a kind of household fairy’ somewhat like a hobgoblin (and indeed similar to the one in JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series). On the other hand, the more recent (2009) Geoff Holder8 has collected evidence to suggest that both boggles and dobbies are associated with murders and suicides. I, in my turn, have come across a dobby which Continue reading
I can’t honestly say my Cumbrian grandparents ever mentioned faeries. And yet, when I look into Cumbrian History & Folklore, I find them all the time. Normally they’re a clue to a history that has faded from popular memory; faery processions at crossroads and over mountains, treading routes to ancient burial grounds, and Bronze Age barrows that turn into faery halls.
The coastal village of Ravenglass is pre-eminent amongst these with its claim to be home of Eveling, King of the Faeries. He lives in the ruins of the Roman castle of Glanoventa (Walls Castle) – complete with luxurious indoor plumbing – with his daughter, Modron. His rath or fort is at Mediobogdum, the ruins of a Roman fort located on the hair-raising Hardknott Pass between Eskdale and the central Lake District. Continue reading
It’s a good theory that faeries are most strongly associated with the ‘Celtic Fringe’ (Scotland, Ireland, the Isle of Man, Cornwall and Wales) because these areas were not overrun by later beliefs that came with the Romans and Anglo-Saxons. Cumbria also largely missed out on the Saxons, so our traditions have a lot in common with the classic Celtic areas. But a perusal of a map, never mind a tome of folklore, shows that Cumbria has at least as many elves as faeries.
The word, ‘elf’ is derived from ‘alfar’, the Scandinavian word for diminutive supernatural types; they are, if you like, Viking faeries. There are several Elf Howes; the Elfa Hills; Elva Hill, Elva Plain and Elva stone circle; Elf Hall at Hallthwaites, Ellabarrow at Pennington, and lots more. Continue reading
According to a document from the village of Lamplugh, in west Cumbria, mid 17th– century parishioners were battling a plague of faeries, witches, will ‘o the wisps, man-eating dogs, fatally strong beer and spontaneous brawling. The document describes itself as a register of deaths for the period 1656 to 1663, and includes the following causes of death:
Two duels, fought with a frying pan and pitchforks – 1
Crost in love – 11
Mrs Lamplugh’s cordial water – 2
Frighted to death by faries – 42
Of strong October at the hall – 143
Bewitched – 7
Old women drowned upon the trial for witchcraft – 34
Led into a horse pond by a will of the whisp – 15
Vagrant beggars worried by Esquire Lamplugh’s housedog – 2 Continue reading
Early in the sixteenth century, a young man by the name of Simon Bell had just finished a long watch in his post as under-steward at Kendal Castle. It was quiet – painfully quiet – and Simon decided he needed company, and entertainment. He took a horse and rode up to Ambleside, where he met with friends and enjoyed a few welcome beers.
It was late by the time Simon set off for home, but he made good speed until he reached a cross-roads near Staveley, when his horse came to a halt and refused all efforts to move him. Simon heard noises around him and looked to see a procession of people ‘all below the middle stature’ who ‘came along the by-road as if their clog-soles had been purposely made of felt’1. Simon’s first thought that this could be a band of Scots, fleeing the recent ‘Battle of Flodden Field2, although if he had thought that there would be any about, he wouldn’t have left the castle in the first place. He hid in the nearby scrub. Continue reading
Cumbria is home to a number of ‘lucks’, or drinking vessels that are believed to protect a home and its residents from ill fortune. Perhaps the most famous is the Luck of Edenhall.
Edenhall is a small village near Langwathby in the Eden valley, and it was the seat of the Musgrave family for several hundred years.
The Luck is a glass beaker, with blue, green, red and white enamel and gilding, in a case bearing the initials, ‘IHS’ – the Greek rendering of Jesus. The glass is believed to be of Syrian or Egyptian origin, and it was made some time around the 13th or 14th century; a similar one was gifted to the Cathedral of Douai in 1329. The combination of location and date strongly suggest that the glass was brought back from the Crusades. Continue reading
Cumbria isn’t alone in having a number of coffin paths, or corpse roads. These days, they’re footpaths between one village and another, sometimes marked with crosses and punctuated with low stone benches. The paths cross water at least once, intersect other paths, and are curiously unpopular amongst locals after dark. Their function until a hundred or so years ago, was simple: these are the routes taken by coffin-bearers to the nearest church with a burial ground. Some routes were just a couple of miles, others much longer, but all cover wild and largely uninhabited territory. Continue reading
For a few years in the middle of the eighteenth century, this fellside on the eastern edge of Blencathra was the the site of spectacular scenes.
The first sighting was on Midsummer’s Eve in 1735. A servant of Mr Lancaster watched a procession of ‘soldiers’, some on foot, some mounted, progress across the fell. He reported his sighting, but was widely abused. Two years later, Mr Lancaster himself, with other members of his family, witnessed the sight; on this occasion, they noted that the procession was five men deep, with mounted ‘officers’ riding around to keep them in order. No one believed Mr Lancaster’s report, either. Continue reading